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Both Sides Now

Apr
25
2005

Businessmen can make good politicians. But they make crummy diplomats. And not all diplomacy is international.
Let’s start with Microsoft. The software giant has been cowed by its local evangelical church into remaining “neutral” on a piece of state legislation that would ban discrimination against gays. They haven’t even been subtle about it. After a visit from the local preacher, Microsoft decided to sit on its hands.
Now, Microsoft employees, happy to joke – well, not really – about working for the “Borg” or the “Dark Side” have enjoyed knowing that they work for a company that shares their social values, tolerance being at the forefront, as it is in most high-tech companies where intellectual and personal quirkiness go hand-in-hand. So “neutrality” when it comes to gay rights comes as a shock to some.
“It’s bouncing all over the gay wires,” says a correspondent who forwarded a plaintive note about the company’s bone-headed behavior. “My Microsoft friends (gay and straight) on the inside are freaked out, sending it all over the place from their Microsoft corporate account, as if the anti-Christ just took over their board.”
Here’s the note making the rounds:

After two years of sponsorship, Microsoft recently
withdrew support for a Washington state bill that would have barred
discrimination based on sexual orientation. This clearly contributed to
the bill’s defeat last Thursday BY ONE VOTE. We’re not talking about
backing off support for a controversial marriage bill; we’re talking
about backing away from a plain and simple anti-discrimination bill.
Reportedly Microsoft caved after meeting twice with a local evangelical
minister. What’s almost worse is Microsoft’s lame attempts to disguise
the motivation behind their policy flip-flop. If Microsoft gets away
with this, it opens a Pandora’s box and will likely lead to an evangelical
campaign to get many more companies to drop their support for equal
civil rights in the LGBT community…..


Why? I mean isn’t it just another company watching its bottom line? Well, yes. But many of those who work loyally for companies like Mr. Softie, as it’s called on Wall Street, like to think that they’re doing “good” work. Now, as any hardened politician knows, “goodness” can take many forms. But for many business people – particularly in high tech where the workforce is often bound to the Mothership by the upside potential of stock options – “good” is a marketing term. Successful sales mean a rising stock price. Good is well, it’s good.
But profit is better. And Microsoft was certainly spooked by the idea of a nationwide boycott of Windows, Xcel or Internet Explorer. It’s business, you understand. Now, of course, it’s faced with a boycott of its products from the other side. The company’s shilly-shalling is a great example of why business people – who are the political and often policy leadership within tech communities like Seattle, San Francisco and Silicon Valley – make lousy politicians. They have divided loyalties. And they always will.
Here’s another example. Slate, now owned by the Washington Post, has sent former tech stock analyst Henry Blodget to China.
Great idea. Send a business guy to see capitalism forming before his very eyes. Except that Blodget doesn’t sound like he’s been to China before. Clearly he’s getting the Western Businessman Special Tour, looking at what tech types like him – Blodget was the guy who predicted Amazon would hit $400 a share and when it did people thought he was a genius – call the “largest market in the world.” That’s a place where labor is cheap and plentiful and a consumer society still unformed. It’s capitalist potential heaven.
From the top-down, that is. But that’s the view which, being a Westerner, is the one Blodget gets. He delicately delivers one of the pet theories of the crowd that thinks that open markets mean open societies: China’s thriving business press, people reporting on the activities and actions of Chinese companies for the benefit of Chinese (and Western) investors. Because they see the creation of an “uncensored” business press, business guys like Blodgett think it follows that China can have “free” markets without democracy. This is trickle-down Tom Friedman (another guy who relies too much on business folks for his insights about the world outside our borders) and it pretty much ignores the active censorship apparatus in place in China. Ask anyone who’s worked there as a reporter or human rights activist. You are not alone very often.
The fundamental problem with Blodget’s “reporting” is that he attributes Western points of view and values to a society that thinks very differently about the role of the individual, the community and economic welfare of both elements of its society. It is a gross simplification to say that China ignores the individual so let’s just say that the idea of the individual as paramount within his society is seen in China as antisocial and, more importantly, unique to the West. Doing business in China is getting easier for the West but it’s a mistake to think the Chinese will let it thrive under any but their own terms. The exploration of the difference between what the Chinese think they can do and control and what they will actually be able to control is a big gaping hole. And it’s one Blodgett doesn’t seem to see very clearly.
And in a breath-taking bit of oh, I dunno – how shall I put this? – name calling and smashing of sour grapes, he has this to say about what you might call a key element in a democratic society: A free press able to criticize the state.

Business journalism keeps companies honest and makes customers and investors comfortable that they at least have a forum in which to complain. Such freedom is not all good—in the media’s eagerness to advance its own economic agenda, it often manufactures scandals where there are none and spins normal free-market processes into institutional or regulatory failures. But just as a free market is more effective than central planning at, say, managing crop production and pricing, a free press enhances the regulatory abilities of a government and creates the information flow that capitalism requires.

Remember, Blodgett isn’t just the guy who was shocked to see that Martha Stewart was found guiity. He’s also the guy who has been barred for life from the securities business for saying one thing in public about a stock (BUY!) and another in private (“piece of shit”). “Manufactures scandals”? Hmmmmm.
Again, it’s the bottom line that took prominence here as it did in his reporting and, like Microsoft, Blodgett wants the compromise he made to take precedence and be seen for what it is and excused. Okay. But isn’t that – in essence – what the Chinese are doing when they ask Western business people to endorse their unique idea of “free” and “open” markets? And isn’t that one of the worst kind of political compromises?
Blodget pointer via Matt Smith; Paul Pan story via Brad DeLong

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